Back in March, United States men’s national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann was a man under fire. Poor results against lesser opponents like Jamaica and Honduras had the team in precarious position for World Cup qualifying. In the press, Klinsmann had his leadership and competency called into question, and his lineup decisions (including using 26 different lineups in his first 26 matches at the helm) left many scratching their heads. U.S. Soccer’s grand experiment seemed to be, if not failing, struggling mightily.
Four months later, one would be hard-pressed to find anybody criticizing Klinsmann, and for good reason. Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Honduras in the Gold Cup semifinal was the United States’ tenth straight victory, the most in the nation’s playing history. With the next round of FIFA rankings on August 8th, the U.S. will leapfrog over arch-rival Mexico and into the top 20 in the world for the first time since 2010. They have a win over Germany, the 2nd-ranked team in the world, on their resume (though, to be fair, the Germans were playing without a full roster and in a friendly). The team is playing with swagger and style, and the resurgence of players like Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson has the team playing its best football in years.
Between their dominant performance in the Gold Cup, as well as their success in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the U.S. is not only a near-lock to make it to Brazil next year, but they are a team that may prove to be a popular upset pick for many World Cup prognosticators. The defensive issues that plagued the team earlier in Klinsmann’s run have mostly resolved themselves, outscoring opponents in this Gold Cup by a total of 19-4 in five matches with what essentially constitutes a “B” squad. The stoutness of the defense has allowed for a much more aggressive offensive attack, which was on full display against Honduras.
Each of the U.S.’s three goals against Honduras illustrated the reasons why the offense has been so potent. First came Johnson’s goal, off a touch pass from Donovan. The quick pass has become a trademark of the offensive attack, but not in the way it has been used in the infamous tiki-taka style of Spain. The Americans have become aggressors on offense, not just possessors. Their first instinct is to move the ball forward, a departure from former manager Bob Bradley’s system. Even if the constant attacking doesn’t produce goals, it certainly wears defenses down and makes them prone to mistakes, as was the case with the second goal of the contest, which came when Michael Parkhurst capitalized on a defensive lapse from the Hondurans and gave Donovan a touch cross in front of the goal for an easy finish. The third score, Donovan’s second of the match, was one of many plays in which the U.S. was able to get behind the defense for long passes up top.
While the United States has put on a clinic in the Gold Cup, it’s important to remember that it’s a weak year of competition, overall, in CONCACAF, and that the great play will be rendered meaningless if they can’t beat Panama, a surprise semifinal winner over Mexico, on Sunday in the final. The win streak is a boon for soccer in America, but results against higher-quality opponents are what will ultimately matter for Klinsmann and his side. However, their play has been great, and there’s no reason to think that what’s worked for them against CONCACAF competition won’t also work against top-tier opponents in Brazil and beyond.
Late in the match against Honduras, Klinsmann was sent off in the 87th minute after rightly protesting some egregious non-calls on the part of referee Walter Quesada, putting his status for the Gold Cup final in jeopardy. It was the perfect encapsulation of the fiery spirit that the coach has brought to this team. The United States are an excellent team, and they’re tired of being pushed around.